Posted in COMRADES CENTENARY

2021 A VERY IMPORTANT COMRADES YEAR

As we move ever closer to getting rid of the year many of us will remember as the year that never was, when the world was effectively turned upside down and so many things we held near and dear to us, had to disappear forever and we had to change, and we all had to learn to make adjustments to the way we live and in many cases with difficulty, we will breathe a collective sigh of relief hoping that 2020 has gone forever but I fear we haven’t seen the last of it.

Some things are slowly returning to the way they were before we heard about Covid but some never will. Some still need to be changed and a lot of thought still has to go into the way many things have to change.

One of the things that nobody has yet come up with an answer to it seems, is the question of the big city marathons around the world where thousands of people run shoulder to shoulder for most of the way and the concept of “social distancing” is virtually impossible. We saw a recent example of what happened to the London Marathon where, usually around 40,000 people or more took to the streets of London and “owned” the city for a day in April every year.  The race was moved to November and to an elite only runners’ race in a multi lap (some 19 laps) in a park in London.  It was a good race if one happened to be watching it on TV but it simply wasn’t the London Marathon.  

Let’s look closer to home however and at Comrades. When entries opened for the 2020 Comrades they were capped at 27500. We don’t yet know what the organisers have in mind for the numbers for the 2021 race or even if there will be a race in 2021. The media launch hasn’t yet happened and entries are expected to open early in the new year and both those happenings have been delayed because of uncertainty.

Every day we hear horror stories of the rise in Covid infections from around the world and who knows what is going to happen in South Africa by June 2021, the provisional date set for Comrades 2021. Remember that this time last year, none of us had even heard of Covid and now, less than a year later, it controls our lives.

Comrades 2021 is a very important one because it is exactly 100 years since those 34 tough runners lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall to run the first Comrades mainly on dirt roads to Durban and just under 9 hours later Bill Rowan put his name into the record books as the first person to win the race in what remains the slowest time in the history of the race.

The interesting thing is the number of runners to strive to win for themselves a “Bill Rowan Medal” for finishing the modern Comrades in under 9 hours and many of those achieving this have no idea why the medal is so named – and sadly most of them don’t care!

Since then, Comrades has written itself a glorious history and culture, much of which is celebrated in various ways still and runners through the years use much of the events of bygone years to measure their own performances and even as recently as 2018, we saw the introduction of the Robert Mtshali medal named after the first black runner of Comrades and now awarded to all runners who finish between 9 & 10 hours. Robert Mtshali ran his Comrades in 9 & a half hours in 1935 so long before Comrades was opened to all races (that happened in 1975), a medal honouring the achievement of a man in 1935 is now awarded so it took 40 years after Mtshali ran his Comrades for the race to be opened to all races and to women.

Comrades organisers have now put up a plaque at Comrades House in Pietermaritzburg to honour Robert Mtshali.

Ask many of the runners who won a Robert Mtshali Medal since it was introduced how it came about and when Mtshali ran and they won’t have a clue.  That is so sad!

These are just two of many little bits of history that go to make Comrades what it is and hardly a year goes by that something doesn’t happen to add to the magic that makes this event so very special and now with the cancellation of the 2020 race because of the global Covid pandemic it joins the 5 races of World War two as the only times the race has had to be cancelled since it’s inception and some months ago I asked Race Director, Rowyn James whether the centenary of the race would be celebrated even if the race itself can’t be held and he assured me that it would.  

Many of us will be very disappointed if there is no actual race between Pietermaritzburg and Durban on the second Sunday of June in 2021 but there can still be reason to celebrate the centenary and it can still be done with all the glitz and glamour we would expect.  One should just look at the Comrades Race the Legends that Comrades put together in June 2020 that took place instead of the actual Comrades and what an amazing success that was to realise just what can be done if necessary.

A huge part of the centenary celebration, I would think, will take in the history of the race and if runners really want to feel part of it they would need to learn as much as they can about this incredible event. There are, sadly, many who regard Comrades as “just another race on the calendar”.

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THE START OF THE 1925 COMRADES

Let me assure you that Comrades is not just another Road Race. It’s more than that. Way more and if we end up without an actual race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, my guess is that the Comrades organisers will still give us plenty to celebrate for the centenary of this amazing event but to get the full benefit please learn as much as you can about it.  It will give you so much more if you do.

Posted in COMRADES PERSONALITIES

ROWYN JAMES – COMRADES RACE DIRECTOR :

One man who seems to have an endless supply of energy and is on the go non-stop is Comrades Race Director, Rowyn James and I managed to catch up with him on one of his flying visits to Johannesburg and sit him down long enough between sponsor meetings to find out a little about the man who drives Comrades and who is largely responsible for making it all come together every year. I started off by asking him when his relationship with Comrades had started.

Photo Rowyn James for souv mag

DJ:      A lot of people are under the impression that your relationship with Comrades started two years ago when you were appointed Race Director but that’s not right because it started way before that because you have run the race 15 times and have a green number. When did your love of this race start and how did it start?

RJ:      It started in 1984. My grandfather was caretaker of a building in Pietermaritzburg opposite the start and we used to gather there yearly to watch the start but I had actually started running fun runs in 1981 when my dad noted that I had an athletic talent at school athletic meets.  I eventually ran my first Comrades in 1987 and ran all 15 consecutively until 2002.   I have Green number 1024.

 

DJ:      Can you give me something that really stands out for you from your Comrades running days?

RJ:      Two things that will stay with me always. I was the second youngest person to ever get a green number (at age 28) because I was able to start at age 18 in those days and I was presented with my green number by Wally

Hayward.

rowyn and wally

DJ:      In terms of your work career you have a long history of being involved in the sports industry? Is that where you always wanted to be and was the job you have now always what you were aiming at as you travelled your career path?

RJ:      I was born and bred in Irene, attended Irene Primary School and then matriculated at St Albans College in Pretoria, then 2 years national service in Port Elizabeth and after that Standard Bank for a while. I then studied BA business admin at Pretoria University and then in 1994 worked for the late Andrew Greyling in his specialist running sports shop until 1997.  In January 1998 I joined Nike SA until December 2007 as Sports Marketing Manager with a specific focus on the road running category.

Then in January 2008 I was appointed as Race Director of Two Oceans in Cape Town and I held that position until May 2013. I then took a sabbatical after leaving Two Oceans and during December 2013 I was approached by Comrades to consider the position of Race Director of Comrades and I joined Comrades in March 2014.

 

DJ:      You have a wife and your job requires that you spend a fair amount of time away from home because of the demands of the modern Comrades. How do you manage to balance your time particularly in the first five months of the year leading to the race itself?

RJ:      My wife is a Grade 1 school teacher and all my jobs have required that I do a lot of travelling and I am very fortunate in that she is very understanding and supportive around that.

 

DJ:      As time passes various things have to change to make Comrades an attractive offering in the world ultra calendar.  I’m sure that people will smile and nod in approval but away from the meetings that decide the changes it’s a very different thing in many cases. Do you find that and how do you deal with it or do you just shrug it off.

RJ:      My career operates with two analogies – DTIP…. “Don’t take it personally” and ” “If you have a perfect event, you have a problem”.   Once something has had the approval of the deciding body or the board or committee then I simply adopt the attitude that it’s not something that I should allow to affect me personally. It’s a business decision and it’s been taken and if it is completely wrong it can always be changed or reversed if need be if it’s shown to have been the incorrect decision.

I want to ensure that the runner has a life changing experience with Comrades. It’s about the athlete and the event. I have been extremely fortunate to experience “both sides of the fence“ so to speak, so I know what the athlete requires and what they in turn experience on race day.

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DJ:      Do you watch and listen closely to what the runners are saying all the time to continually provide the best product to your customer – the runner.  If so an example?

RJ:      Yes always. I prefer to keep a low profile (it’s not about me) but will always mingle with the crowd and listen to what is being said. An example is the way we loaded the seeding batches this year came from somebody at a club meeting who came up with the suggestion of the way we do it at present and we listened and implemented it. We will always listen to good suggestions.

 

DJ:      You have a very good team but you are still very hands on with a lot of things and I think of even little things like distance marking of the roads as just one example where you get involved with the team.

RJ:       My work philosophies are TEAMWORK and attention to detail (ATD) but I work closely with the various portfolio teams and whilst I am very much steering the ship I am also supporting and involving myself with the crew and stepping off the ship last.  I find that the various teams appreciate the input, involvement and support whatever that might be.  I believe in getting stuck into the tasks and engine rooms with them.

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DJ:      It must be a great feeling as happened this year, to get to the end of a race  and that there was no drug cheating and also to get the results through that the  race was clean as it was for the first 10 men and first 10 women and that generally there were no major problems.

RJ:     It is a great feeling and satisfying but by the same token it’s sad that we should have to celebrate something that should be normal.  In a perfect world there wouldn’t be cheating.

  

DJ:      The launch of Comrades 2017 is due in a couple of weeks. Are we in for any surprises of any sort?

RJ:      Yes, some exciting surprises, changes and innovations are coming but I’m not going to tell you what they are.   You’re going to have to wait until the launch on the 18th of August.  Change is ultimately what keeps the Comrades brand fresh and relevant.IMG-20160317-WA0011

 

DJ:      Any other innovations you would like to see coming in over the next few  years and any you can talk about?

RJ:      One I can tell you is that we’re moving the race date to the second Sunday in June from 2018 onwards because of the clash with the Royal show and problems with accommodation and essential support services in Pietermaritzburg.

Another thing we’re looking at in the future is the possibility is reducing the qualifying time back to 4:45 for a marathon. But that hasn’t been decided and confirmed yet. 

 

DJ:    Finally, it doesn’t take 9 years very long to pass and you just need to blink a       couple of times and those 9 years will have passed and 100th Comrades will be with us.  You may say you’re not but I’m sure that there is a little section inside your Race Director’s head that is already thinking about it.      Am I right?

RJ:    Yes you are. Still just a tiny blinking light in the distance.  Nothing definite but ideas running around and one thought is to see an entry of 30,000  runners but I don’t know if Pietermaritzburg could handle a finish of so many so thought needed there.

Remember too that any novice who finished this year and who carries on every year will be in line to earn their green number at the end of the 100th Comrades          

The other thing we have before that of course is the 100 year anniversary in 2021 since the first Comrades was run in 1921 so that’s going to be another special one.

 

One thing I can tell you is that it was fascinating sitting chatting to Rowyn and I was really sorry when our time was up as I could have spent hours more talking to him about this “thing” that is certainly my passion and which I have no doubt at all is also his passion and I have a pretty good idea that as long as he is around   my passion will be in good hands.

I’m really looking forward to the launch of Comrades 2017 that takes place on the 18th of August in Johannesburg and all being well I will be able to write a chapter on what will be happening at next year’s race for themarathon.co

 

 

29 July 2016